Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Apartment Hunting - Chapter 1

Now that the Olympics are over it is time for me to find my own apartment.

I started this by reviewing online ads on two popular websites for expats. There were a number of ads listed that looked promising so I sent off emails. Their apartments were in areas close to where I spend most of my time and were in my price range. Most of the ads were placed by English-speaking real estate agents, who then respond and try to steer me into buildings and apartments they think I would like.

As I am a foreign woman, it is obvious to the agents that I want to be in one of the large luxury compounds that are filled with foreigners from around the world. I've looked at some of the apartments there and felt like I was looking at condominiums in Connecticut, right out of a cookie cutter. They are sterile and there is very little sense of community. Agents stress the club house and the gym facilities, but I have no use for a stair machine since I am already active physically. They tell me that the buildings are safe; Beijing is one of the safest places in the world for foreigners, especially foreign women, and the only time I've ever felt unsafe in the slightest was when I was with foreigners. The realtors look shocked when I say that I want to be in a Chinese compound, but I want to be somewhere with a real sense of community, where English is not the lingua franca.

Yesterday afternoon I'd had enough of politely arguing with the English speaking brokers and walked into a Chinese brokerage firm - Wo Ai Wo Jia, or I Love My House. The brokers weren't sure what to make of me at first, and communicating wasn't easy, but I now feel much happier about the whole process. Plus, I'm learning some new vocabulary words.

When I walked in and the agents looked up at me I said I wanted a, um, (darn it, how do I say rental?), then I pointed at the rental ads in the window so that they would know I didn't want to buy a place. That would be a lot more paperwork than I'm willing to do right now and I don't feel I'm ready to do that here yet. They asked how many people, how big, I explained that the apartment is for me and I'd like one or two bedrooms. I told them the areas where I'm looking. One realtors knew a few words of English ('how much' and 'rooms'), so he quickly became my main point of contact. I told him I didn't want to live in the big international complexes, I want a Chinese complex. He had something else to do so he told me to return in an hour. I asked for his business card, then his name. When he gave me his card he pointed to his name, and I had to explain that "Wo bu kan Zhongwen" (I don't read Chinese). As my vocabulary is smaller than that of most three year olds my inability to read didn't come as a complete surprise so he said his name and wrote it out in pinyin on his card.

When I returned to the brokerage after an hour I waited for him for a few minutes and his colleagues gave me warm water while I waited. When he walked in, he had a set of keys and he and a female colleague told me to follow them. We walked about twenty minutes to a Chinese complex and I was happy to see all of the trees and the retirees sitting outside chatting together. The apartment was a two bedroom, with lots of light, view of the courtyard below, an enclosed shower, a renovated kitchen (no oven, but that's normal here) and a piano in the dining area. It was beautiful, but I told the realtor that I would like something closer to the main street (and the subway). He said something that I didn't understand, then he and his colleague made cars sounds to explain that apartments closer to the street would have a lot of traffic noise. I still wanted to see another apartment, so asked him to find me something else that I would like.

As I walked out of the compound I took a different route, down a tree lined street, and saw that the building was only a few minutes from the street, much closer than I had thought. That night I went back with a friend, and a woman stopped her hacky sack game to tell me should would be my neighbor. It was a homey apartment, comfortable and cleanable, in a great location.

The next day I had a friend call the realtor to speak in Chinese and say I'm interested, but the price was several hundred RMB too high. It turns out that the place would be a sublet. The current tenant signed two months ago, at the top of the market, and would only come down 100RMB per month. I queried friends, locals and foreigners alike, to hear their estimates of what the apartment is worth. The tenants reduced price is still several hundred RMB higher than the apartment is worth in the current market. I liked it, but I'm not willing to pay for someone else's lack of knowledge about real estate prices. I'm going to keep looking.

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